Friday, October 29, 2010

A Critique of Pure Ressentiment

One of the most joyful messages available in the work of Deleuze and Foucault urges us to judge power, not by what it oppresses, but by what it produces or fails to produce. To value that which power oppresses is precisely the formula of ressentiment. It gives the game to power because it focuses our attention on the obsessions of power. Thus, "free love" did not so much liberate love from oppression as valorize the perversions that power, in its clumsy way, produced. Do not understand that too quickly, friends. Think about it.

If we instead looked at what power actually produces, at its effects, we would be in a much better position to choose our authorities in accordance with our own values. We would subject ourselves only to those configurations of power that gave us the strength to accomplish our goals. We would engage joyfully with alternative powers in becoming, not simply resent the "powers that be". We would understand, that is, that power is multiple, always in a position to be challenged, transformed, possessed, if always only in part.

Scholars who think that "the professional journals" are one thing, with one power, under the auspicies of one authority, live very impoverished intellectual lives, doomed always to resent the "demands" that "academic life" makes of them. Scholars who engage with the community of scholars more joyfully, respecting both its authority and its multiplicity, learning both from acceptance and from rejection, always developing the talent for thinking clearly, and speaking truthfully, well, needless to say, such scholars live happier lives, writing more productively, and, I would argue, much more effectively, which is to say, better.

This week I have been trying to push back against Levi Bryant's advice for writers, the core of which is aptly summarized in his title "You Can’t Write Before You Write". It is strange that I should object to advice that I would seem, at first pass, to agree whole-heartedly with. Here's what Levi says:

Writing produces the imperative to write more. This is because, as you write you discover new themes, new concepts, and things that need to be worked through. Like a growing crystal, writing expands. In my view, one of the biggest mistakes aspiring writers make lies in trying to write before you write. By this, I mean that many writers, myself included, try to have their ideas before they write their ideas. But things just don’t—at least for me—work this way. Now, of course, just as you need a seed to form a crystal in a supersaturated solution, you need a seed to start writing. However, the seed is not the idea. The idea is something that only comes into being in the process of writing. It is not something that is there prior to writing. The point is not to have the idea before you write, but to allow the idea to emerge in writing. And once you’ve produced a lot of chaff, you then get to the arduous work of polishing and organizing. In this regard, it is a necessity to write obsessively and all the time. This is where ideas are born, not before the act of writing.

Don't wait to have an "idea", says Levi; write all the time. Why does someone (me) who says "write every day" (like every writing instructor) object to this? That is what I would like explore this morning.

First, do not write "obsessively" and do not write "all the time". Write for a few hours every day according to a plan; write in a calm and collected way. Write responsibly. Second, it is not as true as it sometimes seems that ideas "only come into being in the process of writing". Ideas come into being when you least expect it, often quite unconsciously, and are always there in advance of the writing. Your writing simply presents your ideas. When writing, you are writing your ideas down, ideas you already have. It is true, as Levi says, that you shouldn't wait until you are aware of your ideas to write (you should write simply when your schedule tells you to) but the writing does not "give birth" to your ideas, it merely shows them to you.

This is especially true of academic writing, where you write, quite literally, "what you know". If you sit down every day and write down what you think for two hours, i.e., write about the ideas you already have, instead of forcing yourself "obsessively" through the barrier of your ignorance, then your knowledge will grow in a natural way. The next day, you can sit down, without ressentiment and do it again. The tree does not "overcome" itself when it grows; it just grows.

Trying to have ideas as you write (trying to give birth to them in writing) is as unproductive as trying to "write before you write". Levi replaces one joyless imperative with another: don't try to write before you write but do "write obsessively and all the time". Write, he says, to give birth to ideas. No, I say, write to make your ideas clear to you, and to your peers.

The "demand" of your peers is not that you write something but that you present your ideas clearly. This is part of the quality control system of the academy. When you are not writing, after all, you are an authority on your subject. Levi is an authority on Deleuze's philosophy and no doubt teaches his students what Deleuze thought. When Levi writes as an academic (for publication in academic journals) he is presenting his ideas to people who are qualified to correct him where he is wrong, people who know roughly as much as he does about the subject and are therefore able to contribute to the development of his thinking on the subject. To resent this "demand" for clarity, this requirement that we open our thoughts to qualified critique, is to resent the basis of our own authority. It is to abhor the sound, if you will, of our own voice as scholars. We should write to find out what our ideas look like and then submit those ideas, once clarified to our satisfaction, to review by our peers. If it passes the preliminary review, it is thereby exposed to critique.

Deleuze and Guattari say somewhere in Anti-Oedipus that "there are no contradictions, only degrees of humour," and somewhere in my reaction to all this, I hope it will be clear, there is some good-natured disagreement, not just a surly rejection of Levi's position. While we no doubt have different senses of humour, my issue here is with the advice he gives as a writer. I don't think it is sound at all. It is largely the opposite of the advice I give, mainly because I've seen what his attitude towards writing can do to perfectly promising writers and scholars. He is proposing, not to dismantle your ressentiment, but to ratchet it up into a full-blown obsession.

I'm not unaware of the difficult rhetorical space this topic occupies. Writing processes are highly personal matters, and Levi's readers, some of whom we meet in the comments, are right to admire his forthrightness about how his process works. Levi has made a certain attitude (even philosophy) of writing available for critique, and I have exploited that opportunity, now, for all it's worth. But I would caution against taking criticism of his approach (with which a lot of people identify) personally. Indeed, Joseph Goodson's comment (#14) offers a good indication of how difficult this conversation can be. Jonathan had said (#11), as I have, that he "totally disagrees" with Levi (albeit only on a particular point). In response, Joseph offers the following sarcastic retort:

The best way to start a conversation on the internet:

“Totally disagree with this.”

Also good are: “You’re completely wrong,” “what were you thinking?” and “you’re an idiot.”

Ah, the internet.

It is, of course, a version of "Who let this asshole into the conversation?" Notice that Goodson here equates the rhetorical effect of "I totally disagree with you" with the rhetorical effect of "You're an idiot". Jonathan was starting from a position of genuine, if complete, disagreement. Goodson is saying that Bryant should take offense rather than engage with this disagreement. Ah, the internet, indeed!

The "tics and phobias" Levi has bravely, although, I suspect, somewhat self-righteously, presented for us have helped to bring an object lucidly before us. He has, if you will allow me to wax Kantian for a moment, made it possible to investigate the conditions of the possibility of academic ressentiment. I hope only that I've made some small contribution to a critique of this pernicious sentiment, which, as Levi rightly says, seems to be founded on a kind of "transcendental illusion".

PS: Much of the traffic on my blog this week has come via this post at Perverse Egalitarianism. Thanks for the plug, Michael.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Authority and Originality

Kierkegaard wrote "without authority", "proprio Marte, propriis auspiciis, proprio stipendio". He never held an academic post and produced one of the most original bodies of work in the philosophical canon. He is rightly celebrated as an outsider that had enormous influence, a "scoundrel", if you will, and he himself identified strongly with Socrates, who of course also worked without institutional authority. What is sometimes forgotten, however, is that Kierkegaard strongly resented his exclusion from academia.

In continuation of Monday's post, I want to talk about the relationship of Levi's ideas about authority to his ideas about originality, staying focused all along on the problem of writing. Levi rightly talks about his views here as "tics and phobias" and as "an impediment to writing", but he manages to reconstruct these "fractal like symptoms" as signs of deeper virtues. Such a reconstruction (of weakness as virtue) is, of course, a classic operation of ressentiment. Let's see how it works here.

"In my core," Levi says, "I am profoundly anti-authoritarian, suspicious of any groups, and resistant to any demands." But he is not, of course, arguing that in order to become a more productive writer, a better writer than he, and a happier one, one should get over one's anti-authoritarianism. Rather, he is arguing that one should avoid writing in genres that are governed by authority. One should write blog posts and letters, and blog-posts-cum-letters. In a slogan, epistles not articles. (That, by the way, is what we're doing right now.) When one does write an article or a conference paper, i.e., when one does pretend to be an "author", one should "trick" oneself into thinking that one is really writing a long letter. If it is published, so be it, one still wrote it without authority.

(I am, of course, trying to draw the standard connection between "authority" and "authorship", which is also a running theme, if I recall, in Kierkegaard's The Point of View for My Work as an Author. )

The same insistence on not treating the disease beneath the symptoms of ressentiment can be seen in how Levi talks about originality. He begins with a clear sense of the weakness of his attitude (qua point of view for the work of writing):

[T]he biggest issue I struggle with when it comes to writing is originality. Am I saying something original? Do I have something original to say? The pursuit of originality, I believe, is one of the most paralyzing things for writers and among the greatest impediments to writing.

But after a digression on kudzu (a weed, whose growth he likens to writing), he reconstructs this impediment (namely, the pursuit of originality) as something altogether more productive:

[W]e suffer from a sort of transcendental illusion. We (or I) think to ourselves that if we have an idea it can’t possibly be original precisely because the idea is familiar to us. It is not new to us. But writing is not for us, but for others, whether those others be our own future selves or the self we are becoming in the act of writing (writing has the magical power to remake you) or for the others who might read our scratchings on bit of napkins. On the other hand, originality cannot be anticipated. If originality could be anticipated it wouldn’t be originality. Rather, originality follows the logic of Lacan’s tuche or chance encounter. Originality is something that occasionally takes place, but if it does take place it can only be known as having had taken place, it can never be experienced in the moment. We only ever know that originality has taken place retroactively. As a consequence, it’s important to surrender the desire to anticipate originality so as to clear a space in which the event or chance occurrence of originality might take place.

Don't worry, that is; you are probably more original than you think. In fact, don't think about it too much. Let it happen. If it does, it will happen "by chance". If people take your "scratchings on bits of napkin" as sure signs of genius, let them. But don't try to make that happen. Rather, trust that it will. I'll grant that that last bit of "faith" is not made explicit in Levi's post, but it is, I think, part of the attitude I'm trying to get at here.

There is another view of originality, of course. It ties the novelty of one's contribution directly and constructively to a respect for authority. In your field, especially as you enter it (note that Levi was unable to respect authority even in school), there are people who do the things you want to be able to do well, people who do those things much better than you. Your aim should be, first and foremost, to master the skills that they master, to learn what they know, to develop your talents in imitation of theirs. Why would you worry about, or even valorize, originality before you have attained basic competence? Indeed, the desire to be original, which, like I say, is transubstantiated by ressentiment into the presumption that you already are original ... or not, but the question is in any case out of your hands ... is too often simply an unwillingness to learn, to study, to pass through the humble (and, for some, humiliating) experience of apprenticeship.

Notice the problem with Levi's position: "originality" is relativized entirely to "the other" who reads your work. To be original, then, all you have to do is find a sufficiently ignorant, sufficiently incompetent audience. This may include your "future self", i.e., your own self once you have forgotten what book you just read your most recent brilliant idea in. The other view of originality holds you to a higher standard—the standard that is defined by the best work currently being done in your field. You should seek out those living masters, these authorities, and study, yes, under them, if only virtually, by reading them, and, importantly, by submitting your work humbly for review in the journals where their work is published. For most people at an early stage, enrolling in a middling university will do. The "trick" is to have some respect for those who already know what you are just beginning to understand. Do your assigned reading out of respect for this knowledge. Don't resent the accomplishments of those you aspire to become.

[Update: "The path to originality is to forget about originality, like Pierre Menard. Originality is tiresome if it is sought after, courted, forced.//Be derivative, like Robert Duncan" (Jonathan Mayhew).]

Monday, October 25, 2010


In his preface to Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, Foucault suggests that one of its lessons is "not [to] become enamored of power" (xvi) (if you wish to master "the art of living counter to all forms of fascism" (xv)). But he also says that we should "not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant" (xv). I generally interpret all this to mean that our resistance to power must not be undermined by "ressentiment". Do not, we might say, be resentful of power either.

Where academic writing is concerned, our resentment is often directed at the power of editors and publishers. Last week, Thomas Presskorn drew my attention to a very instructive statement of this attitude towards academic writing by Levi Bryant, who is known for his work on Deleuze. As I said in my comments to his post, it would be difficult for me to disagree more completely with his approach than I do, and part of my disagreement stems from having been there myself. I know, I dare say, exactly how he feels. After a long struggle with similar "tics and phobias", I have a more joyful (less sad) attitude towards the academic discourse, "even though the thing one is fighting is abominable," as Foucault puts it (ibid.). I have learned, I think, that my resentment of the power of discourse lay in something closer to my being enamored with it than I had hoped. It lay in something like envy, which is also, of course, a crucial component of Nietzschean "ressentiment" (standard Kierkegaard translations render "envy" simply as "ressentiment").

The first thing I should point out is that there is a less than constructive, and ultimately sort of false, humility in Levi's post. He begins as follows:

I ordinarily don’t like to give advice on writing as I don’t believe I’ve attained the status as a philosopher, academic, or writer to speak with authority on these sorts of issues. I often think of myself as a sort of rogue, scoundrel, or hobo that wanders about at the margins of the academy without having really established myself in any way. In other words, I have a pretty low opinion of my work.

That this humble "hobo" is constructing this position out of his ressentiment can be seen in his response to my criticism, where he (quite rightly, I should add), points out that his work (and therefore his reflections on how he produced it) is worthy of some respect:

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with my own scholarly work. As someone who has done fairly well recognized scholarship– I’d direct you to my book on Deleuze –I’m not exactly speaking out of the blue, nor am I some young, idealistic upstart as you patronizingly suggest.

Moreover, on the Q&A on his faculty page, where we also learn that he is a perfectly respectable professor of philosophy, he tells us that, "I have wanted to be a professor since I was roughly 15 years old, so I haven't really considered other possibilities." It is not at all surprising that such a person would describe himself as a "rogue, scoundrel, or hobo", but it is, I would argue, also a pretty typical symptom of academic ressentiment.

That Levi sees his writing as an extension of the art of "non-fascist living" can be seen in his disparagement of journal articles and conference papers:

In my core I am profoundly anti-authoritarian, suspicious of any groups, and resistant to any demands. [...] When it comes to writing I struggle to complete articles and conference presentations. Rather, I experience blog posts and email discussions as far more valuable and rewarding. [...] What is an article but a line on the CV that falls into oblivion, killing more trees along the way, never to be heard from again. What the hell are we doing in writing articles?

As I never tire of explaining, an article is not just a line on a CV. It is, when it is done well, a contribution to an ongoing conversation among knowledgeable peers. It is not simply a genuflection to disciplinary authority, a falling in line, saying the same old thing, although it obviously can be all of those things. But so can any other form of writing (Levi valorizes blog posts over academic texts). The academic, "professional" literature is not just a "demand" that we write, it is an opportunity to engage with with what is known on a subject.

I'm out of time this morning. I'll take up Levi's very important treatment of originality on Wednesday. Needless to say, I worry that all this looks like an attack on Levi, and in a sense it is, but it occurs to me that when Levi suggests "setting these weird little ticks aside", he is granting half my argument. He's giving me a finger and I'm taking the whole arm. I am making explicit what he has perhaps already implicitly said. By way of apology for this, then, let me repeat that I'm after my own sad self here, not Levi's.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What's a blog post, anyway?

I forgot to announce that RSL is taking a scheduled, one-week break. I'm visiting the good people at ESADE at the moment (enjoying it very much!) and will take a few days off with my family when I get back. Regular posts, every other day, will start again Monday.

In the meantime, here's some easily digested food for thought. In Slate this week, Farhad Manjoo raises, but doesn't quite answer, a question that no doubt sometimes occurs to you as well. What is the difference between a blog post and an article? The difference is more marked in academia than in journalism, of course, but I think it's ultimately the same distinction: an article is subject to editorial review while a blog post is not. It is a blog post if the author makes the decision to publish. It is an article if an editor makes that decision. That's my view, anyway.

Back next week.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Engaging Conversations

(This post is a continuation of Wednesday's post.)

During the seminar on the relevance of scholarship last week, not a few disparaging remarks were made about the pressure (and desire) to publish in high-impact academic journals. Several speakers contrasted "engaged" or "relevant" scholarship with the sort of scholarship that is published in the Academy of Management journals, ASQ, and similar outlets. One version of this point targeted people who pursue "the ultimate truth" about things; a related version targeted those who think of publications and (somewhat contradictorily) conference presentations as the "end product" of the research process. I think both of these targets are straw men, and I think they misunderstand the reasons people should (and like to) publish in quality journals (and attend major conferences).

There is no ultimate truth and publication is not an end in itself. But this cannot be an argument for a new kind of scholarship because traditional scholarship has been well aware of these facts since, well, time immemorial. People who think publications contain ultimate truths and are ends in themselves are not just rare; they don't exist. But there are many people who think the fact that there is no ultimate truth and publication isn't a worthwhile end-goal is a "game changer"—a good reason not to spend very much of their time getting published.

That brings us to a third straw man: the idea that people who publish in so-called A journals don't do anything else. This is the image of the radically disengaged scholar who collects data, reads in the library, and sits in her office writing. All three straw men are figments of the imaginations of people who don't publish very often (or at least only very much against their natural inclinations). No productive (regularly published) and happy writers devote all their time to the task of getting published. They don't believe in ultimate truths and they don't see publication as an end in itself.

They approach the journal literature as all writing manuals and composition teachers these days suggest they should, namely, as a conversation. They do write every day (again as all manuals and teachers suggest), but not all day. Morten Vendelø, who said many insightful things at the seminar, made one suggestion at the end of the seminar, and at the end of a series of really great observations about the conversational nature of research, that totally missed this point. Maybe researchers could be allowed (and encouraged) to forget about publishing for awhile, he said, so that they could devote more time to actually having that conversation.

This takes the idea that research is a conversation way too literally. Research is a virtual conversation that goes on in the academic literature and at academic conferences. It is true that practitioners don't get very much out of reading these journals and that they feel "out of the loop" on the rare occasions that they attend the conferences. (It is also true, as Chris Grey emphasized, that many academics today feel alienated by the highly specialized themes and jargons that dominate the literature. That's the subject of another post, coming soon.) But that is simply because they don't have the time, training, and interest to participate in conversation in these contexts. (They have the need, as Rikke pointed out, for speed.) As many academic writing instructors have pointed out before me (most of them inspired by Kenneth Burke's image of the "parlor") the relevant conversation was going on before we got involved (and before we were born) and will continue after we retire (and after we die). Research as a conversation takes a long view, and a slow one, of what it means to "talk". It is "the conversation of mankind" (a metaphor that is so old, you'll notice, that it's still got a gender).

We should always be writing (every day, but not all day). As I've said before, we should always be "glossing" our ideas for publication, which is to say, as a contribution to the ongoing conversation. But we should not fixate only on "academic journals". We can participate in multiple conversations. So, I've also long been suggesting that people spend some of their time glossing their work for practitioner reviews, like the Harvard Business Review. Like I said on Wednesday, they should also engage with the conversation in the classroom (at undergraduate, master's, MBA and executive levels).

People who publish often in A journals also participate in other fora. Majken Schultz, one of our hosts last week, is a great example. She is regularly published in the journal literature, regularly seen at conferences, and, as she emphasizes in a recent piece on the issue of relevance (PDF, published in an A journal, you'll note), writes a regular column for a major Danish newspaper. That's engaged conversation. To have it, there is no need to disparage the journal literature. On the contrary. Publish or perish, friends. Seriously. That is: engage in the conversation or find something else to do.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Brighter Tomorrows: The Product Launch

(Continued from Monday's post.)

At the seminar on the relevance of research that I attended last week, Rikke Stampe Skov represented the practitioner's point of view. She is director of sales at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Denmark (but it was made clear that she represented herself, not her company, which is only fair; the academics were not representing the positions of their universities either). And her perspective was openly shaped by her many years of experience in marketing. Like the others, her presentation was on topic and focused and gave us exactly what we needed, namely, her thoughts about what "the relevance of research" means. Given Andrew Van de Ven's suggestion to listen more to the concerns of practitioners, this was an excellent opportunity to "engage".

What struck me about her views was mainly her image of the academic "product". Some might object to applying the language of "product" and "sales" to academic life altogether, but I think it's familiar enough now not to sidetrack the discussion. Most of us talk easily and largely without irony about "the production of knowledge" these days, but I think we do so without reflecting enough on where this "business" model best applies. Stampe Skov was very clear about where she was applying it: she believes that academia should produce ideas and that these ideas should then be sold to people like her, the practitioners.

Now, she clearly didn't mean that there should be a straight economic transaction, nor that she favoured a "transfer" rather than a "co-production" model. She was, in a deeper sense, worried about our brand. She said that we were not "visible" enough in the market. When she needed ideas, she didn't know who at the business school to contact. When we (presumably) came up with a new idea, we didn't do much to let her and her peers know about it. What we needed, she suggested was a "product launch".

But we also needed to rethink our product a bit, she said. Whenever she did stumble on our products, she found them difficult to apply because, as is our wont, we presented them in highly technical forms (like journal articles) and with too much detail. She reminded us that she always needs "80% solutions" and that we seemed to be perfectionists in this regard. She reminded of us what she called "the need for speed".

What struck me was this focus on ideas as our product. (Again, as I'll show in a second, I don't object in principle to the idea that universities make something, i.e., that we have a "product".) After all, Stampe Skov is completely right to suggest that we do a piss poor job of selling our ideas to society; the great majority of our ideas circulate only within the academy and would be of little use to the practical concerns of business. Indeed, our knowledge seems largely "adademic", "theoretical", etc.

But what if knowledge (in the form of ideas) is not really our product? What if observing that ideas only circulate in the university is like wondering why car companies never get their nuts and bolts sold. Or why the machines on the assembly line never get sold or aren't, in any case, familiar to the customer. What if ideas and knowledge are not our product as such, but merely that which goes "into" our product? That which goes into the making of the product.

After all, we do have a highly visible product launch. It's called "graduation". Every year we send a new cohort of graduates into the job market. They are hired (or not) on the basis of their grades and the institutions that granted them their degrees. The quality and distinctness of this product (compare CBS, University of Copenhagen, Harvard Business School, etc.) is not only visible but outright famous. Moreover, practice has become pretty good at getting value for money. There is a good understanding of the reasonable price (starting salary) of the product on launch day.

So long as we have students and so long as our students have a reasonable chance of getting jobs, I don't think we have a sales problem. Universities may, in a sense, produce "knowledge". But this is only a sort of marketing gimmick. Or better: it's just a very general description (and positive spin) on our much more workaday product. It's like an electrical company that sells "brighter tomorrows". We sell bright people to organizations who need such people.

Interestingly, many of them, those who have been getting perfectly good grades throughout their education, are exceptionally good at producing 80% solutions (that's how they graduated on time). Like I said to Rikke at the seminar: "We have your 80% solutions. They're called B students and, frankly, you can have them." Practice might also want our A students, but it will have to pay them more because we have a competing offer. We're going to offer them careers in research where they can cultivate their intellectual interests. We're going to let them pursue 100% (and more!) solutions. Our need for speed is not so great. I think it's a fair arrangement.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Engaged Scholarship

Last week, I attended a half-day seminar hosted by the Department of Organization on "relevance and engagement with practice". It was really well done, with short clear presentations and plenty of time for discussions. That's not to say that I agreed with everything that was said, of course, and this week I'm going to write three posts based on my notes from that seminar.

The core of the seminar consisted of presentations by two guest speakers: Andrew Van de Ven from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota (USA) and Chris Grey from the Warwick Business School (UK). Van de Ven published an influential book a few years ago called Engaged Scholarship (Oxford University Press, 2007), which became the touchstone for much of the conversation. In this first post I'm going to talk about Van de Ven's and Grey's presentations. On Wednesday I'm going to talk about the practitioner perspective on the issue and on Friday I'll talk about the perennial issue (certainly here at RSL) of publication.

Van de Ven presented engaged scholarship as a kind of social movement that seeks to transform the way we do our research at the universities. Citing Ernest Boyer's 1990 report, Scholarship Reconsidered, he called for researchers to think of themselves as more than that, i.e., to think of themselves not narrowly as "researchers" but broadly as "scholars". This means being open to many different points of view and those points of view, he emphasized, include practitioners. We must, that is, begin to engage more with practice—we must make ourselves more "relevant". Instead of producing knowledge in isolation from practice (cultivating what he calls an "insular" ethos) and then somehow "transferring" it to practice, we should think of ourselves as "co-producers" of knowledge. That is, knowledge is to be produced "out there" in practice, not "in here" in the academy.

I should mention that Boyer's report is of particular interest to me because Karl Weick recently invoked it to dismiss my concerns about his scholarship—mainly misreading and plagiarism of his sources. These concerns, he says, are not relevant because he practices what Boyer calls "the scholarship of integration". "Some value that form of work," he says dryly. "Some do not" (2010: 179). That is, because Weick's work is "engaged", he seems to be saying, ordinary "academic" standards don't apply.

As Van de Ven presented, I got increasingly concerned that "engaged scholarship" is a kind of assault on traditional academic values. It is an attempt to valorize "imagination" over "validity" (Van de Ven 2007: 19) and therefore marginalizes forms of criticism that might point out straightforward errors of scholarship. The question, then, is whether this reprioritization is worth it. Indeed, there appears to be a counter-movement out there as well, namely, the growing concern with "academic freedom". After all, if scholars are increasingly asked to "engage" with practice then they are also asked to take practitioner concerns seriously and this means being more responsive to what the practitioners would like us to say. As Morten Vendelø astutely noted, sometimes the "co-producer" doesn't want to hear what the researcher discovers, so one way to keep the "co-production" running is, presumably, to think of something else to say. Academic freedom is not an "unengaged" attempt to "insulate" the academy from practitioner concerns; it is a wholly legitimate attempt to protect long-term research interests (of society as a whole) from short-term business interests (of individual organizations).

This is where Chris Grey's ideas impressed me. He pointed out that "being relevant to practice" is a very complicated matter because "practice" isn't any one thing. Even if we confine the "practices" that organization studies "theorize" to "management" (and Grey was right to question doing so), there are a multiplicity of "stakes" (matters of concern for stakeholders) that one might be responsive to. All research is relevant to (i.e., engages with the practices of) someone. The strength of university-based "academic" research has always been its openness to this multiplicity of concerns. Grey noted in passing what I think is really the strongest platform for engagement—the classroom—and that's what I will talk about on Wednesday. The student body is the only place where transfer-to-practice by "co-production" of knowledge makes sense. Indeed, not only are our students, taken together, richly "multiple", they are a way of engaging with the practice of the future.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunday Night Movie

This post is worth taking the time to read (and watch), if I do say so myself. It might take about half an hour, so get comfy first.

Friday, October 08, 2010

From call to Abstract 3

Kristian noticed a couple of defects in Wednesday's version of the abstract (see comments). I have tried to fix them here:

The past is shaped by the present. More specifically, our image of the past is shaped by the way contemporary events are embedded in social relations, which constrain their development and condition their interpretation. Building on Granovetter’s (1985) classic argument for the social embeddedness of economic action, this paper examines the ways in which an economic region—the so-called “Øresunds region”—constructs an image of its own past, as well as the history of the European common market, in its attempt to establish opportunities for future growth. This process is always dependent on a complex arrangement of contemporary social relations. The analysis is informed by Spicer's (2006) call to move the discussion "beyond convergence-divergence" and his idea of a "shared space" formed by capital, regulation and discourse.

Today, I want to add another reference, this time to a paper that is much more central to the discipline of economic sociology:

Amin, Ash and Nigel Thrift. 1995. "Institutional Issues for the European Regions: from markets and plans to socioeconomics and powers of association." Economy and Society 24 (1): 41-66.

Where Spicer's paper was a way that we could practice some interdisciplinarity of our own by drawing on an article outside economic sociology, Amin and Thrift's paper exemplifies the very sort of interdisciplinarity that we are after. It draws together five "strands" of research in an attempt to understand the "socioeconomic" situation of the EU regions, among these are both the sociological tradition (where Granovetter's paper has been, as they say, "seminal") and the field of organization theory.

Here's a stab at integrating their work into my abstract:

The past is shaped by the present. More specifically, our image of the past is shaped by the way contemporary events are embedded in social relations, which constrain their development and condition their interpretation. Building on Granovetter’s (1985) classic argument for the social embeddedness of economic action, and its application to the institutional problems of the EU regions by Amin and Thrift (1995), this paper examines the ways in which an economic region—the so-called “Øresunds region”—constructs an image of its own past, as well as the history of the European common market, in its attempt to establish opportunities for future growth. This process is always dependent on a complex arrangement of contemporary social relations. The analysis is informed by Spicer's (2006) call to move the discussion "beyond convergence-divergence" and his idea of a "shared space" formed by capital, regulation and discourse. The paper is motivated by Amin and Thrift's concerns about the narrow (or "conservative") "idea of an 'economy' embedded in a society". What we see in the case of EU regions, perhaps, is an active appropriation of history by locally "embedded" actors that is likely to shape both the economy and the society.

Keep in mind that this abstract is written on the basis of a very cursory reading of Spicer and Amin and Thrift. (We have, of course, been pretending that the Granovetter article is already under our skin.) If we were really going to submit this abstract we would need to spend some quality time with those articles in order to make sure that we're getting them right and putting them to optimal use. But by spending a few hours (I've spent maybe three so far) articulating our reaction to the call itself, and looking for other participants in the conversation that we want to have, and articulating a possible place for them in the argument, our reading will be much more focused and, ultimately, productive. We are not simply reading them—we are actively listening to their contribution to what we want to say. We are using the abstract, then, to track how our ideas develop.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

From Call to Abstract 2

We began by searching for articles about the European Union and embeddedness that also cited Granovetter 1985. One of the most interesting papers that we found were:

Spicer, Andre. 2006. "Beyond the Convergence–Divergence Debate: The Role of Spatial Scales in Transforming Organizational Logic". Organization Studies 27 (10): 1467-1483.

The paper is interesting to the problem we set ourselves in the last post because (1) I recognize the author (he is already part of my scholarly network) and (2) it constitutes an "inter-disciplinary" engagement on the subject of space (bringing together economic sociology and organization studies).

As to the paper itself, Spicer argues that "organizational logics are transformed as they move across space ... through three interconnected processes: capital accumulation, regulation and articulation of discourse." Given the argument that I want to make, it is especially the way organizational logics are transformed through "articulation of discourse" that is of interest to me. Also, he uses Granovetter to establish the fact that "logics are not unique to each organization, but tend to be embedded in shared spaces, such as the nation state", which is interesting for two reasons. First, we can agree about the lack of organizational uniqueness but, for my purposes, we will need, second, to take the sense of "shared space" beyond the (standard) focus on the nation state. (That is, we will need to do with an economic region what Granovetter and Spicer unproblematically do with the nation state. ) In other words, Spicer (and this article in particular) seems to engaged in precisely the conversation that I want to enter. Or, at the very least, he is someone who might be interested in the conversation that I want to start.

So our abstract might now read:

The past is shaped by the present. More specifically, our image of the past is shaped by the way contemporary events are embedded in social relations, which constrain their development and condition their interpretation. Building on Granovetter’s (1985) classic argument for the social embeddedness of economic action, this paper examines the ways in which an economic region—the so-called “Øresunds region”—constructs an image of its own past, as well as the history of the European common market, in its attempt to establish opportunities for future growth. This process is always dependent on a complex arrangement of contemporary social relations. Guided by Spicer's (2006) call to move the discussion "beyond convergence-divergence", it construes the region as a "shared space" for organizations in which images of the past are transformed through capital accumulation, regulation and, especially, discourse.

On Friday, we'll add another reference and wrap things up.

Monday, October 04, 2010

From Call to Abstract

I had the pleasure of teaching a group of very intelligent second-year economic sociology students how to write an abstract the other day. Their questions and suggestions forced me to say something, if I may say so, very intelligent about this important art and I think I'll spend this week's posts trying to get some of it down. (I have written about the abstract before. See this post.)

We began with a real call for papers (CFP) that their teacher had identified as relevant to their discipline. CFP's are good occasions for writing because they mark tangible conversations among researchers. They announce real places where real scholars can meet at real times to exchange what they really know.

But CFP's should not be the sole occasion for writing and should not drive the writing process. Rather, your writing process should be a continual "prosing" of your world, a developing articulateness about what you know. Every now and then, a CFP will refocus your work on a particular theme with a particular audience in mind. The analogy for undergraduates is straightforward: don't let assignments and exams be your sole occasion for writing. Write every day as part of your learning process, and use assignments only to refocus your writing on a particular conversation at a particular time.

In this class, I proposed a (half) fictional case in which I was doing ongoing research in the economic history and sociology of the European Union, Scandinavia in particular. This work, we imagined, was done in the tradition of inquiry into the social embeddedness of economic action, i.e., the tradition in which Mark Granovetter's "Economic Action and Social Structure" (1985) holds a central place. We imagined that I knew a great deal about the evolution of the European common market and that I understood the issues surrounding the notion of embeddedness.

Here's the CFP:

Spaces and Places

This strand explores the shape of the past, the specificity of place, the influence of environment, the nature of boundaries, and the impact of travel. It maps divisions - whether they be urban-rural, region-nation, centre-periphery, north-south, metropole-diaspora - and the communications that flow between them. It is concerned with the exchange of people, materials and ideas across spaces, whether through migration, trade, or conflict. It explores how landscape shapes historical relations, and how place and experience intertwine. It examines the historical role of imaginary places, and the contribution of wanderers and explorers. Contributors are also invited to consider how the shape of the past can best be visualised, particularly in the light of new technology, and how a sense of place informs collective memory.

Proposals may deal with any period and may treat any portion of the globe. Individual papers or panels of up to three papers exploring these themes are all encouraged, as are interdisciplinary papers uniting history with geography and other social sciences. (Social History Society)

One of the students astutely noticed that the language of a CFP is very open, even vague. This is because conference conveners would like many submissions to choose from (this is to ensure quality) and do not want to narrow the field to submissions to the usual suspects (they want to ensure diversity). They really do want to be surprised; they want to find out what's going on out there in the heads of their thousands of unknown peers.

The abstract must be much more specific, much more focused than the CFP. An abstract must, perhaps ironically, be more concrete than the call. Here is the first draft of an abstract I presented them with. It is an attempt to reframe my (imagined) ongoing work in terms of "the shape of the past" and "the specificity of place".

The Past of Least Resistance: constructing yesterday’s market today

The past is shaped by the present. More specifically, our image of the past is shaped by the way contemporary events are embedded in social relations, which constrain their development and condition their interpretation. Building on Granovetter’s (1985) classic argument for the social embeddedness of economic action, this paper examines the ways in which an economic region—the so-called “Øresunds region”—constructs an image of its own past, as well as the history of the European common market, in its attempt to establish opportunities for future growth. This process is always dependent on a complex arrangement of contemporary social relations.

From here, we went on to locate literature to help us connect this idea to the call that inspired it. With the help of one our resource librarians, we looked for literature in the Granovetter tradition that also had an interest in the EU. We looked at what the conveners themselves had written about space and place. And one of the students pointed out that the strand welcomed interdisciplinary work, so we kept an eye out for work that had been published outside the field of economic sociology, e.g., organization theory. On Wednesday, I'll have a look at some of the things we found, and show how to work them into the abstract.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The 30-minute paragraph

These past couple of weeks I've been showing myself how much I can get done in 10 minutes. One morning I wrote 236 words in 9 sentences. Thinking strictly in terms of quantity, that's more than enough for a paragraph. Another morning I wrote 217 words, organized roughly in two paragraphs, though both of them could use some work, and some elaboration, of course. Another ten minutes would probably have accomplished a lot. Ten more again would have given me time to read the prose through a few times, fixing errors and improving flow, even read it out loud.

Three times a week I spend a single hour composing a whole blog post. Again, thinking strictly in terms of quantity, some of them are quite substantial. So between the ten-minute writing experience and the one-hour writing experience, I'm quite certain that my suggestion on Wednesday that a working academic writer should be able to compose a standard six-sentence paragraph in support of a claim in about 30 minutes seems realistic. Also, I think if a writer did actually spend a well-defined 30 minutes on a well-defined claim, and then moved on to the next claim in the next 30-minutes, a certain kind of care and attention would be fostered. It would show in the style of the writing.

A standard journal article contains about 40 paragraph-sized claims. These, then, can be expressed in roughly 20 hours of work. One of these weeks, I'm going to work from 8 to 12 on a 40-claim paper, for five days, one paragraph each half-hour (with a three minute break or so, so only about 27 minutes of work). Just to see how it feels to structure my attention. The result will no doubt only be a draft (a re-draft, since there will have been a lot of drafting in advance just to clarify the forty key-sentences). But I think it might accomplish a great deal in terms of clarity.

(I started writing this post, after moping a bit over my coffee (and even writing a comment on Jonathan's blog), at about 6:15. It's now 6:40. [Update at 6:45: After posting it, I read it through, found an omission and corrected it. 30 minutes well spent.])